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Income Matters More Than Assets
The 529 college savings plan assets do not have a significant impact on eligibility for need-based student financial aid. Need analysis formulas are heavily weighted toward income, not assets. Less than 4% of dependent students have any contribution from parent assets in the calculation of the expected family contribution (EFC). (Child assets are assessed at a much greater rate than parent assets, but 529 college savings plans are treated as though they are parent assets.) If a family has annual income in the six figures, the income by itself is sufficient to prevent the family from qualifying for need-based government grants even if they have no assets. Consider also that the federal need analysis methodology has an asset protection allowance based on the age of the older parent that shelters a portion of reportable assets on the FAFSA. For most parents of college-age children, this typically shelters about $50,000 in parent assets. Any remaining assets above the asset protection allowance are assessed according to a bracketed scale with brackets that range from 2.64% to 5.64%. So the worst-case impact is a $564 reduction in need-based aid for every $10,000 in 529 college savings plan assets.
Distributions from Non-Reportable Assets Count as Income to the Beneficiary
A Roth IRA may have a significant impact on eligibility for need-based student financial aid.A Roth IRA is not reported as an asset on the FAFSA, but all distributions from a Roth IRA — even a tax-free return of contributions — are treated as income to the beneficiary on the subsequent year's FAFSA. (This is also true of other non-reportable assets, such as 529 plans that are owned by someone other than the student or parent, qualified retirement plans, life insurance policies and annuities.) The income will be reported either as taxable income as part of the adjusted gross income (AGI) or as untaxed income on the FAFSA. Either way the income has the same impact on the student's EFC. This can have a severe negative impact on aid eligibility, much more severe than the asset treatment of a 529 plan. Treating a distribution as income to the beneficiary will reduce aid eligibility by up to 50% of the amount of the distribution. There are a few workarounds. One is to wait until the student's senior year in college to take a distribution. If the student won't be going to graduate school, there will be no subsequent year's FAFSA to be affected by the distribution. The student could also wait until after graduation and use a tax-free return of contributions to pay down their student loans. Finally, the student could use the Roth IRA for the intended purpose, to save for retirement, and not take any distributions. So long as there are no distributions from a Roth IRA, the Roth IRA will not affect eligibility for need-based financial aid.
Taxpayers Cannot Directly Transfer Funds from a 529 Plan into a Roth IRA
The Internal Revenue Code does not permit a taxpayer to roll over a 529 college savings plan into a Roth IRA. Instead, one must take a nonqualified distribution from the 529 plan and invest the cash in a Roth IRA, subject to the applicable annual limits. Taxpayers who take a nonqualified distribution from a 529 plan account to fund a Roth IRA will not only have to pay ordinary income taxes on the earnings portion of the distribution, but also a 10% tax penalty. The tax liability usually outweighs any potential increase in student aid from sheltering the funds as an asset. If the taxpayer received a state income tax deduction or tax credit based on their contributions to the state's 529 college savings plan, recapture rules may require repaying this tax benefit if the taxpayer takes a nonqualified distribution from the 529 college savings plan.
Low Roth IRA Contribution Limits Affect Ability to Save for College
The Roth IRA contribution limits for 2012 are $5,000 for taxpayers under age 50 and $6,000 for taxpayers age 50 or older. The contribution limits are also capped at total taxable compensation, whichever is lower. If the 529 plan assets fall below these thresholds, they are not large enough to have much of an impact on aid eligibility. To accumulate significant sums in a Roth IRA requires several years worth of contributions.
Evaluate Impact with an EFC Estimator
Before playing asset-shifting games, use an EFC calculator to evaluate the impact of sheltering the 529 college savings plan and the impact of counting the distribution from a Roth IRA as income to the beneficiary.